By Adrin Fisher

A typical high school student struggles with several aspects of writing.  Some students are still fighting through the basics:  punctuation, fragments, and agreement.  Others have graduated to more advanced issues like parallelism, sentence variety, and voice.

A typical high school teacher struggles as well.  I struggle with chaining myself to my dining room table in the hopes that *this time* I won’t get bogged down in twenty minutes’ hard labor over each of the seventy essays I collected yesterday.  Maybe *this time* I can do what veteran teachers have been advising me to do for the last two decades:  narrow the field and resist correcting every spelling error and every comma splice, and refuse to write all those helpful questions encouraging development.  Fingers crossed!

Another struggle—perhaps one more easily solved—is the glum feeling that students already know the things I want to teach them.  There’s so little novelty by the time they’re in high school.  They were introduced to sentence types in first grade and metaphors in second, after all.  When I find a way to access some mostly-forgotten piece of information, I am totally game.  Turns out, students are, too.

Let The Dash Hunt Begin!

Born from a pile of generally well-written but boring essays, The Dash Hunt is a fun way to remind students about sentence variety and to promote the development of voice.    


  • First, find a few pieces of mentor text that incorporate the dash.  The first time I did The Dash Hunt, I used local newspapers.  Last week, I used the Up Front magazine that I had on hand.  I tell the kids, “If a writer for the Associated Press or the New York Times is doing it, you can, too.”
  • Next, do a two-minute review with the class.  Hyphens are short and they CONNECT words. Dashes are long and they SEPARATE words.  If you’re feeling fancy, discuss en vs. em dashes.
  • Next, pass out your mentor texts.  The hunt begins!  Instruct students to scan the text, highlighting or otherwise noting the sentences that use dashes.  They should stop to analyze the purpose of each dash.
  • Then, as a whole group, discuss the purposes they discovered.  You’ll be amazed at how right your students are!  Wrap up with any nuances they’ve missed.
  • Finally, set those young writers loose to incorporate dashes into their drafts or final copies or a journal or whatever bit of writing is handy.

The discoveries one class made during their Dash Hunt.  Photo by Adrin Fisher

My Dash Hunt strategy can be modified to cover any grammar issue you’re working on.  Why not an Indirect Object Hunt?  What about a Synecdoche Hunt?  Create a hunt for any “move” a writer makes.  And then—most importantly—have the kids use it.

The dash can do so much—change the tone of a sentence, replace other punctuation, or elaborate on a topic—and, since it’s not usually emphasized by teachers, it’s fresh to students and to you, helping you all struggle just a little bit less.

One thing’s for sure.  That giant pile of essays seems a little less daunting when I can look forward to reading seventy unique and varied voices.  Happy Hunting!


WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. Try this strategy out and let us know how it worked!  What ways have you found to inject novelty or develop voice in your students’ writing?  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not managing lively discussions, developing teaching strategies, or conferencing with budding writers, you can find her talking video games with her kids, walking through the woods, or pounding through a good novel. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin


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